For American Jewish liberals and the legacy organizations they dominate, the impulse to take sides in a debate that is polarizing Israeli politics was irresistible. So, it was unsurprising, if disappointing, to see with what eagerness they weighed in on this week’s Knesset vote on the first part of the judicial reform package put forward by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The largest and most influential of the groups that have always claimed to speak for American Jewry were not shy about expressing an opinion about what was, strictly speaking, a purely domestic issue. Taking their cues from the secular liberal opposition to Netanyahu that has mobilized street protests in the last six months over the plan, organizations like the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs all expressed their dismay over the vote to prevent the Israeli Supreme Court from striking down laws purely on the basis of what the judges arbitrarily claim is “reasonable,” rather than on a point of law. Other mainstream groups like the Jewish Federations of North America, as well as a host of smaller left-wing organizations, and those representing Reform and Conservative Judaism agreed.
These Jewish groups were expressing their instinctual support for the opposition to Netanyahu, with whom they generally agree on issues relating to security issues. In doing so, they were likely listening to the sentiments of many of their constituents, in addition to following the lead of the Biden administration and the Democratic Party, which the majority of non-Orthodox Jews supports. Just as Democrats have rallied around the dubious claim that their opposition to Republicans is a matter of defending democracy, liberal American Jews have swallowed the anti-Bibi resistance talking point about judicial reform being an attempt to destroy Israel’s democracy hook, line and sinker.
This is exactly the sort of virtue-signaling that leading Jewish groups excel in since it will have zero impact on events in Israel and costs them nothing. Aligning themselves against Netanyahu and his right-wing and religious party allies that won the last Israeli election just seven months ago undermines their claim to be supporting democracy. The same is true of their rhetoric about insisting that such legislation be passed only when there’s a broad consensus behind them—a point they’ve never insisted on when it comes to either American or Israeli policies that tilt left. Given that, like President Joe Biden, Jewish Democrats are vocal critics of the far less powerful U.S. Supreme Court for its conservative decisions and the utterly unprincipled nature of their critique of Israeli judicial reform is readily apparent.
But the problem here goes far beyond hypocrisy.
As even some on the left have conceded, for all of the apocalyptic rhetoric that has been voiced recently about democracy being imperiled by judicial reform or the claptrap about Netanyahu setting himself up as an authoritarian dictator, the argument is really about something far more serious than those bogus claims.
A culture war
The great divide inside Israel isn’t about competing theories over how much power the judicial system and, in particular, the Supreme Court, should have. Indeed, the arguments being voiced rarely seem to get into the details of judicial reform. Few critics of the reform proposals seem to think that unelected judges should have, as a matter of legal principle, the right to strike down any government appointment or policy without respect to the standing of those suing for redress. Or whether the issue is to be decided as a matter of law only on the basis of what they think is reasonable. Nor are many people seriously claiming that democracy rests on the principle that democratically elected majorities should be rendered virtually powerless by the fiat of those judges on any issue that interests them.
Rather, their objection is to who is leading the current government and which groups within Israeli society they represent.
Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and religious parties broke a three-year-long stalemate last November and secured a clear majority of the Knesset. Almost as soon as it was clear that he would return to the prime minister’s office—thus continuing his record run as the country’s longest-serving leader—those who had backed the parties that lost began to take to the streets in protest. Ostensibly, the point was to oppose judicial reform, one of the key planks of the winner’s platform. However, it was quickly apparent that the people in the streets formed an anti-Bibi resistance movement—one deeply angered by the presence of the hawkish pro-settlement National Religious Party and Otzma Yehudit, as well as the two haredi parties.
The anger about the new government essentially reflects a cultural divide between the country’s old secular, liberal and Ashkenazi elites, and the emerging majority that is composed of nationalist, religious and Mizrachi citizens. The former ran the country for its first few decades and still dominates its academic, legal, business and security establishments, representing the forces behind the protests. Their anger about Netanyahu and his government runs deep. This still deeply influential class of people has demonstrated this with a willingness to sabotage the country’s economy and even its security via the refusal of reservists to serve that even some of their supporters have dubbed an attempted military coup.
They back the idea of a Supreme Court that is not so much a check on the elected government as one that has asserted for itself virtually unlimited power. They are in favor of this precisely because the left-wing parties they vote for have been losing elections, and the liberal-dominated court has been able to hamstring Netanyahu and his allies with impunity, thus in many ways nullifying the will of the voters.
As such, their issue with judicial reform is due to the fact that it will finally allow the majority to govern, albeit within the normal constraints that a court limited to ruling on issues of law could impose. They regard this democratic result as intolerable. So, when Netanyahu’s opponents say they want to preserve “democracy,” what they’re really saying is that they want to preserve their own power—and view their fellow citizens who differ with them as the moral equivalent of the Iranian ayatollahs whose influence must be stopped by any means possible.
An expression of contempt
Finding a way to bridge the gap between these two groups is essential to Israel’s future. But the assumption that the only way civil peace is to be preserved between them is by the majority conceding that it has no right to govern is actually antithetical to democracy.
Yet that is the position that the leading American Jewish groups are taking.
This pits the purported voices of American Jewry against a group of Israeli Jews that was clearly in the majority the last time the nation headed to the polls. Indeed, the hysteria of judicial reform opponents is a function of their justified fears that the left might never win a Knesset majority again due to the country’s changing demography.
The stark divide between the nationalist and more religious Jewish population of Israel, and the largely liberal and secular majority of American Jewry, has already led some in the latter to dub the former a “red state.” By taking sides with the liberal minority in Israel in this manner, the AJC, ADL, JCPA and others who agree with them are essentially sending a message to Israelis who are not Ashkenazi secular liberals that American Jews don’t see them as members of the same Jewish family. Their intervention in this already bitter dispute must be seen as an expression of the same contempt for the voters who backed the current coalition that has become a staple of the street protests.
That gives the lie to their talk about Jewish unity. It also sets a precedent that will give cover to the growing wing within the Democratic Party that wishes to downgrade, if not break, the alliance between Israel and the United States.
American Jews who genuinely care about Israel are entitled to their opinion about who should govern it and what they ought to do. But the liberal groups’ stand on judicial reform is more than a policy position. By joining in the Israeli culture war that is now unfolding, it’s essentially a declaration of war on much of the Israeli population and an indication that American Jews will only support a Jewish state that looks, thinks and prays just like them.
That’s not a viable blueprint for a relationship between the two communities or the two nations. It’s a formula for the cutting of ties between them. And that—rather than whether or not judicial reform is a good idea—is a disgrace that illustrates the bankrupt nature of these legacy organizations and their unfitness to speak for either Jewish values or the interests of the Jewish people.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.